Sunday, October 4, 2009

Thoughts On Acquiring Old Tools

Some hand tool woodworkers are lucky enough to live in areas with readily available old tools; others are not. I fall into the latter category. I occasionally get questions from others living in similar old tool wastelands about where and how I get my tools. I recently received an email from a reader named Martin that asked about finding old tools. He ended his email with this question:

"So I guess I'm asking, what's your strategy?"

Here's my (slightly edited) reply, which might be of some use to others:

Hey Martin,

I'm not sure I have a strategy - it's more like an obsession :)

But I'll try to organize my thoughts (might be hard just now - 7th graders are wearing me out - I must be getting old!)


1. eBay! I'd say approximately 50-60% of my old tools have come via eBay. See below for more info.

2. New England. About 40%. I've taken two trips back East and sent home coolers full of old tools each time. The coolers are a cheap, practical way to protect the tools and are then reusable back home. Of course, it is a little hard to explain why I have a shed full of coolers...

3. Various other non-Alaskan settings Oregon, Texas, Ohio, Kentucky. 5%. Basically, anywhere I go I scour the area for any place with old tools - flea markets, junk stores, antique stores, thrift stores etc. Basically, I can't drive past any even remotely potential source without saying "Hey, that looks like they might have old tools in there!" Have I mentioned that my wife is a saint?

4. Local Alaskan sources - 1%. Just not much here at all...but I keep looking!

Here's a nutshell version of my eBay rules:

1. Know what you are looking at. Knowledge is king. Most sellers don't know squat about what they are selling - "complete", "mint", "light use", "great condition" etc. mean nothing. You need to know enough to judge for yourself. There are endless examples of this: dado planes with no nicker iron called "complete"(avoid), #78 duplex rabbet planes "missing the front blade" - it only ever had one iron (not a problem - and could be a deal if others don't know that...), "unique block plane" that is really just a broken #3 etc.etc.

2. The web is your best friend. Use it to help with rule #1. If you haven't found it yet - try Patrick Leach's Blood and Gore for information on Stanley planes, the Disstonian Institute for Disston saws etc.

3. Pictures are key. The more quality pictures, the more you can apply rule #1. Spend time studying the pictures.

4. Feedback is useful - to a point. I've had excellent transactions with sellers with very low ratings - but I stay away from those with numerous negatives, or even one negative that has an unsatisfactory response.

5. Know what you are willing to pay - don't get sucked into the bidding frenzy. I've seen used LN planes go for more than LN charges for the same plane new! And at least one person is regularly selling a book for over twice what Lee Valley (the publisher) charges for it. Crazy.

6. Spend some time doing searches of "completed" auctions - this will let you know what range of prices things have gone for recently - maybe that deal isn't really as good as it looks. See rule #5.

7. Snipe. Bid your maximum price (see rule #5) at the last second. If you get it great - if not, there will be more. In my opinion, bidding early only lets others talk themselves into outbidding you - hence the sillyness mentioned in rule #5.

8. Be ready to learn how to fettle. Sometimes you can score tools ready to go. But mostly you need to work on them a bit. Don't rule this out - it is a tremendous learning opportunity.

9. Be ready to be disappointed once in a while. But really, if you are applying rule #1 and rule #5 this won't be too often. I've bought hundreds of tools on eBay and only been flat-out ripped off once, and extremely disappointed twice, and both of those were because I did not fully appreciate rule #3. My fault really.

10. Completely read the sellers listing - paying particular attention to the shipping section. Probably more important to me, as most sellers don't seem to know that Alaska IS on the continent...

11. Have fun with it. It's an auction - not a store.

Thanks for asking this question - I've never really thought about this in any concrete terms. I might do a blog post on this...

Take care - Dan

And of course, these are just my opinions. I know others may have very different strategies that work great for them.

Good Hunting!


  1. All excellent guidelines Dan!

    While I do live on the East coast, my preference in planes (wooden planes) requires that I do a lot of my buying on ebay and other online sources as well. Good wooden planes just aren't all that easy to find in the wild too often, especially the specialty ones like molding and joinery planes. While saws, chisels, metal planes, etc. are a cinch to find at the local fleas and antique shops, wooden planes aren't as easy to locate here in South Jersey (and I don't have the time to hunt too often).

    One thing that I think has been helpful to me regarding wooden planes is to stick with dealers (even on ebay) who DO know what they have. While I less frequently get tools for a steal this way, it does ensure that I get a useable tool as the dealer is typically knowledgable enough to answer questions about how suitable the tool is for use as opposed to display. As you well know, while a wooden plane may look like it is in good shape, if there is any warp to the stock or missing or broken boxing, it basically makes the plane useless without a lot of work that probably isn't worth what you paid for the tool. The more knowledgable dealers that do know what they have are going to be asking fair price, but in my experience it has been worth the extra $10 or $20 I spend to know that I will be able to use the tool when I get it with minimal work.

    With the metal planes this isn't usually a problem as most can be salvaged fairly easily. But with woodies, the game gets a little more difficult as there can be more hidden defects that even really good pictures might not show.

    Of course every once in awhile, you can get a good steal, even on a woodie, if you're persistent and watchful. I recently got a box of 8 brand new Greenfield Tool Co. molding & rabbet planes that had never been used and still had factory grinds on the irons. The wood was so clean and the stamp so crisp you'd have thought they just left the factory yesterday. Paid about $20 apiece (shipped) for them, which in my eyes is a steal. A rare find but sure exciting when it happens.

  2. Bob - Great points! Especially about the wooden planes.

    It all depends on how you like to play the game :) I agree, as the reliability and reputation of the seller goes up, the chance of getting a high quality tool increases as well (and the price too). But somehow, I just can't let go of the thrill of the hunt!

    And nice score on the Greenfields!

  3. Dan - good post and information. Even were I live in West Tennessee, the "pickens are slim" -garage sales don't produce much, and flea markets you can find a rusty, paint stained #4 so I have relied on e-bay and have for the most part been lucky. I recently tuned up my #3, #4, and #5 with Hock blades and chip breakers and work great. Your comment is right on about learning with tools that may require some work. I bought Garrett Hack's Handplane book and that really got me started in cleaning, adjusting, and sharpening.

  4. Nice ebay strategy summary. One thing I would say on sniping is that it often comes down to when you need the tool versus how much you're willing to pay for it. When I was first starting out, I did it a lot, simply because I needed stuff.

    But now that I've got most of everything I need, I just troll the listings once or twice a week and if there's something I like that doesn't have any bids yet, I put in a max bid and leave it. Most of the time, someone else takes it. And that's OK, because it's not worth the risk for most sellers. But every now and then, it gets passed over and I get it. It's usually when the pictures are lousy and the description is just flat-out silly.

    The pigstickers I've gotten recently were like this. I "lost" nearly every last one of them that I bid on, but I got what I wanted for a lot less that I would have paid had I needed the tool that instant. It probably just comes down to how much time and patience you have.

  5. Rick - Yes I agree - nothing can teach you more than struggling with a plane that really needs some work. And the satisfaction of finally getting it to produce nice shavings is hard to beat.

    Brian - True - the more you need a tool, the more you are willing to pay for it. Tools you just want are more likely to be ones you try to get deals on. And of course, the sniping strategy has a huge drawback if you forget to bid! I've missed bidding on great looking tools, only to find out later that they went for the minimum bid - bummer! So yes, there is something to the bid once and let it ride approach.

    By the way - nice blog man!

  6. HI Dan,

    Nice blog, I just stumbled across it. Good to know there is another galoot in Alaska! To bad we live in such an old tool hell! I have family in PA, I love looking for old tools when I'm back there.


  7. Jonathan - I'm glad you like the blog. And yeah, Alaska is great for a lot of reasons, but availability of old tools is NOT one of them. Thanks for the comment, hope you stop by again!

  8. Thanks for those thoughts Dan!

    What an interesting coincidence that "the Schwarz" published a similar article about the same time. He recommended a number of honest tool dealers.

    Like Bob R., I too subscribe to putting my faith in dealers known to be reliable, and to pay them a bit more because they really are accurate in their understandings and dealings. That's especially important for those tools I really want. All of my "essentials" have been from people like Snady Moss, Jon Zimmer, Patrick Leach, and Walt Quadrato. Those folks are the next best thing to visiting Jonesport or Liberty Maine.

    As I move to the less essential tools, I'm looking at eBay a bit more but am still apprehensive about a lot of what I see there. Oh yeah, that great Disston rip saw was an eBay purchase.

    Bottom line, I'll trade a little bit more money for a known good reputation. (and a return policy)

    BTW, the Schwarz posting is at:

  9. Like Bob, I too read the Schwarz's article about buying vintage tools, a topic near and dear to me as I spend half my life pursuing them. Hitting your site this morning was like finding an extra present behind the Christmas tree. Great stuff, Dan.

    I am, however, sitting here trying to figure out the boundary line for the have and have not areas you mentioned at the beginning of your post. I live between Alaska and New England, ok, closer to New England, but still between the two. Somewhere there is an imaginary line drawn in the sand that vintage tools can't cross. There must be, because where I live, we got nothin' too.


  10. Bob - I noticed the coincidence with Chris's blog too - and my post came first...wait, did I influence "the Schwarz"? :)

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience with reputable dealers. I think for many that is a great way to go. But I'd also have to say, that I don't think I would know half as much about tools as I do now if I didn't spend so much time trying to figure out what's what on eBay. Of course, I'd also probably have spent more time actually using the tools rather than messing around with them. But I don't mind - it's all part of the experience I enjoy. Funny though, it doesn't bother me to spend a half hour sharpening a saw, but I used to hate spending 10 minutes adjusting my table saw. Hmm.

    Mitchell - Wouldn't it be fun to be able to map the flow of old tools? If each tool had a tracking device? We probably see a slow migration east to west, then stagnation as hand tool work died out, then a growing random explosion as eBay and the hand tool renaissance hit. Maybe then we could locate that "line". Thanks for the comment.

  11. I have had some surprising success at midwest garage sales. Not insinuating that anyone should just wander around Kansas hoping to find something in between trips to Dodge City and the world's largest ball of twine. But if anybody is passing through small towns, you'd be surprised what the small town folk are just trying to unload.


  12. Eric - I'll have to keep that in mind - I've never had much luck at garage sales. But I guess it just depends on the region. And about that twine - waxed or unwaxed?

  13. Hey Dano,

    Next time you come out to New England, let me know.....would be great to see ya, I'm living in New Hampshire, if you didnt know. Hope alls well with you!

  14. Joe - Nice surprise! Don't know when we will be out your way - but I will be sure to drop you a line. Hope all is well with you too!


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